Postprocessing in outdoor photography

In an internal mailing list, a friend sent around these photos. Here is one:


The interesting thing was back in February, Mark Jen sent those same shots to me and the graphics design department. I composed a reply, but never posted it. I guess I better do something about that.

Very striking images! How did they take such amazing “postcard” shots? Are they real?

I guess it depends on your definition of real. It’s actually pretty easy to get that postcard look. Here’s an example from a photo I took:

Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls

Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls
Yosemite National Park, California

Nikon D70, Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G DX
1/500sec @ f/9, iso 800, 35mm (52mm)

[A discussion of capture and editing of landscape photos after the jump]

Capture: An interesting subject

The first key is in capture, and the first thing in capture is to choose an interesting subject. Nature photography follows the same rule: the distinctive topology of Southern China and Southeast Asia makes for an interesting subject, especially to us Americans. I sometimes wonder if Yosemite might inspire similar things to people in China.

Upper Yosemite and Half Dome

Upper Yosemite and Half Dome
Yosemite Falls Trail, Yosemite National Park, California
Nikon D70, 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G, UV
f/11 at 1/20 second, 18mm (27mm), iso 200

Of course, some photos are dramatic even to those of us who’ve been to Yosemite as Sara Meidinger demonstrates:

Capture: An interesting angle

Composition is very important and something I’m terrible at. A good photographer can make us look at something we’ve seen before in a manner we’ve never really thought of. When I see a good photograph of somewhere I’ve been, I always feel a tinge of jealousy.

Misha and I crossed paths on the same day on Berry Creek Falls trail, but his shot of the lower Golden Cascade Falls is much better because he puts you in the water:

[Later: upload a photo of Golden Cascade Falls]

If you look at the photos of China you will see that many seem to be aerial shots, that’s the novel angle.

Capture: An interesting time

Photography means “light writing” and since nature shots (especially landscapes) don’t move, the only painting a nature photographer can do is use the sun’s light to paint the scenes emotion. This is why sunrise and sunset is called the magic hour.

Most of the photos linked and shown are taken near sunrise or sunset. Sometimes the subject matter and composition has to carry the entire photograph (as is the case for the waterfalls in Big Basin State Park which are always in the shadow of the Redwood trees), but that is rare.

Near sunrise and sunset, the colors are richer; the shadows are better. The Yosemite photo was taken in the early morning. Sometimes you can even shoot into that morning sun, though you might have to take multiple exposures to get the necessary dynamic range that preserves the sky’s colors as well as the foreground detail:

Golden Gate morning

Golden Gate Morning
Golden Gate Bridge, Marin County, California

Nikon D70, Nikkor 12-24mm f/4G
(3 exposures, 1/400-1/25sec) @ f/9, iso 200, 12mm (18mm)

The same goes for sunset. Heck the camera can be an old 2.5 megapixel one and you might not have a tripod lying around, nobody is going to notice:

Pigeon Point Near Sunset

Pigeon Point Near Sunset
Pigeon Point State Historic Park, San Mateo, California

Olympus C-2500L
(5 images from 1/400-1/200 sec) @ f/5.6, iso 100, 9mm (36mm)

But the general thing isn’t about the time, it’s about the light. When the light is right, the emotional impact can be nothing short of awe inspiring (and a bit humbling):

Processing: Gradient masks

In the old days (less than a decade ago), legendary nature photographers such as Galen Rowell used gradient neutral density filters in order to recapture the eye’s dynamic range on film. Sara shows us how it is done in a picture that’s worth a thousand words:

ND Filter

Instead of this, I do this in postprocessing. In the Golden Gate Bridge, I took three exposures and then blended between them in the manner I explained earlier. In the case of the Yosemite Falls photo at the top of the page, I just used a 16 bit image and artificially added back in the color of the sky with a blue gradient mask.

Processing: Increase saturation and contrast

While you want to use polarizing and UV filters to reduce haze, it only does so much. Normally you can’t play with the saturation very much because it ruins what our eyes know to be a healthy skin tone. But for nature photographs you have a lot more leeway. Similarly too much contrast normally casts harsh shadows on faces, but brings back structure in the image lost under the midday sun.

Here, I applied filters to add some brilliance and warmth to the scene, some digital polarization and a digital gradient nd filter to remove the haze and bring back the dramatic sky.

Overtop Yosemite Falls

Overtop Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls Overlook, Yosemite National Park, California

Nikon D70, Nikkor 12-24mm f/4G
5 exposures (1/400 – 1/250sec) @ f/9, iso 200, 12mm (18mm)

Iterating our way over the edge

Of course, when we’re done doing that, our photo doesn’t resemble what came out of our camera:


Getting back to the original photos linked from Southern China, they’ve been heavily processed to the point of being borderline unreal. Christina Lutz can show just how extreme it can get:

Are these real? I don’t know. Those things are very important in nature photography because the realism behind a photo makes us believe “this is the way as it is.”

The reality is our eyes don’t see the world as it is. If you read a book indoors at night, do the pages look yellow as they are or white? And what does it mean when your eyes see a much larger dynamic range than a camera can record, which in turn is much larger than what the monitor can display, which in turn is much larger than what the printer can print?

On the other hand, if we aren’t recording it as it is, then is it nature at all. When editing images became popular in the 1970’s, color photography moved from realism down to a jaded public that assumed some of the most amazing images of our time were manufactured, when the only manufacturing being done was Galen Rowell running as fast as he can to get the rainbow that appeared in the right position:

I don’t know the answer to that question. The best I can do is offer descriptions on my image for what postprocessing steps I took and hope the people can judge for themselves if what I did was “as it is” or a cheat.


On a side note:

Christina’s and Sara’s photos are pretty amazing photographic demonstrations of what I’ve been talking about. But instead of teaching us, Michael Hughes has turned this trick into an art form. Here he shows a novel way of looking at the Golden Gate Bridge:

And like all great landscape shots and despite the kitsch, they can have surprising emotional impact:

You can see his entire set: “Souvenirs.”

Parting shot

Back to Southeast Asia and Southern China. I’ve never been to that area of the world. The scenery is amazing. Here’s a favorite of mine from a girl next door who happens to visit and live in so many places I’ve never been:

She mentions that it was a cloudy day. But in keeping with the spirit of the article, I hope she doesn’t mind if I take some creative license with the photo:

Ha Long Bay traffic (postcard edited)

6 thoughts on “Postprocessing in outdoor photography

  1. John,

    Thanks for the page, I made the change. It looks much better there than on Flickr’s background. I couldn’t link the image directly because of the size and the background image embedded.

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